The societies of our times are experiencing many changes, most of which have the habit of perpetuating the ills of previous times. This has created a sense of pessimism, opting to believe that change is impossible, if not unnatural. A cynical view that states that things are as they should be, since human behavior is determined by our genes, our ‘selfish genes’ as some would say and thus any effort against them is an effort against nature, against evolution itself. It so happens, that most of the proponents of this cynical view, are members of the ruling class or sponsored by it, but this is too easy an argument against its validity. What their deterministic view suggests is that the inequality and injustice of our times have always existed in one form or another, they are innate characteristics of a universal human nature which sees egotism, self-interest and ruthless competition as the guidelines of our evolution as a species and as self-evident arguments of their status in the current world order. We rule because we are the fittest to rule, hence our place is a ‘natural’ progression of human evolution, of human behavioral patterns that award the powerful and punish the weak.
The political ideology of freedom and equality that legitimized the overthrow of the aristocracy helped to produce a society in which the idea of equality is still as subversive as ever, if taken seriously. If the society in which we live is to become just, both to the possessors and to the dispossessed, we need an understanding in which the reality of social life and social order would become identical to the morality that celebrates these ideas. It is precisely the need to avoid doing so, that exposes the powerful in their efforts to self-justify their place with an ideology that embraces stasis with absolute resolve against any societal change. By redirecting attention from the structure of society to the structure of nature of individuals, the ruling elite has used the ideology of equality against itself, for according to their ‘liberal’ views, everyone can succeed, so long as one works hard and perseveres. If one fails, it is not a consequence of societal unfairness, but rather, an inherent weakness of will or character. Hence, inequality is the natural outcome of the majority’s inability to rise above their circumstances and therefore it is impossible to create a system that would equate the weak with the powerful since any such effort would only corrode the foundations of society that humanity has struggled so hard to build.
Ruling classes have throughout our history tried many times to cement their societal status quo with scientific determinism. Belgian colonists in Rwanda sponsored Tutsi rule over the Hutus while esteemed Belgian scientists were doing experiments trying to prove Hutu’s biological inferiority. Nazis executed homosexuals, the sick and the Jews based on their ‘scientific’ theories of racial purity of the Aryan race and so on and so forth. Women’s ‘inferiority’ to men was also considered ‘natural’ in many ‘civilized’ Western societies until recently. History has seen much blood spilled on the grounds of someone’s ‘natural’ superiority over another and science has often been used as the tool by which the elite exercised its power and justified its violence.
One of the most well known arguments against this scientific determinism is that of ‘naturalistic fallacy’, which draws a clear distinction between what ‘is’ and what ‘ought’ to be. Our biological differences do not by themselves constitute a basis of what is ‘fair’ or ‘right’ within a modern society. It cannot be so, since that would mean that our genes, or even heritage for that matter, for which none of us had any actual choice on, should be the sole conditions to be taken into account for our place in society. How can something so arbitrary, as our parent’s genetic material, for no fault of our own, be considered an absolute condition for who we are, what we can do in this life, how we behave and how we are to be treated by others?
Ideas of justice cannot be derived from the facts of nature, although, since that would mean that we take as a priori that, what is natural is also good, provided one is willing to accept, for example, that the blinding of infants by trachoma is ‘just’ or ‘good’. If ‘human nature’, our genetic code, is left alone to dictate human behavior, and what is considered ‘evil’ in modern societies is regarded as ‘natural’ since its manifestations are part of our ‘selfish genes’, then how can we justify medicine? If a baby is born sick, malformed, we should then by all means kill it or let it live without treatment. What of free will? If we are bound by the ‘defects’ of our genes, how can someone be blamed for committing a crime? Should we imprison people from birth? If inequality and injustice are inherent societal characteristics resulting from our innate unequal nature, and our ‘natural’ propensity is in favor of competition and self-interest, why do we even have laws, courts and organized legal systems? We might as well accept our ‘nature’ and the inevitability of the selfish ‘human nature’ and do nothing to treat the sick, feed the poor or pass laws to protect human rights. Let’s just roll the dice and whomever can climb faster on top of everyone else’s corpse is the winner. Is this really the best that humans can expect after 10.000 years of human civilization? I think not.
The argument of ‘naturalistic fallacy’ leads us consequently to a second argument against the scientific determinism, that of equating ‘innate’ with ‘unchangeable’. If evolution has taught us anything, is that nature is in a constant state of flux. A very slow flux that extends over periods of hundreds of thousands of years, millions of years even. What we consider ‘unchangeable’ in our mere 80 year life, is for nature just a infinitesimal fraction of a single stage in its everlasting evolution. Our ‘unchangeable’, our ‘natural’, is just a snapshot from the trillions of images that make-up human evolution. Even the last 10.000, or 200.000 years is a snapshot in evolutionary terms, considering that the planet exists for the past 4.2 billion years. Homo sapiens exists only for 0.0048% of the planet’s age. We are evolutionary infants. What is innate, doesn’t equate with what is unchangeable, that is nonsensical. Our history is full of examples of the ‘artificial’ overcoming the ‘natural’. Man doesn’t have wings to fly, yet we do fly, routinely every day. Man doesn’t have an immune system to fight off all the viruses and diseases that nature can produce, yet we are still alive. Man doesn’t have the ability to move mountains or connect the seas, yet we have done so. Our whole civilization is based on our ability to overcome our natural shortcomings and shape the environment around us to suit our needs and our desires, albeit, with devastating effects sometimes. Nothing natural is unchangeable. The unchangeable parts of nature are the ones that do not survive the flux of evolution. ‘Fittest’ in evolutionary terms does not mean ‘stronger’, it means ‘adaptive’, and to adapt, one must find the courage, the creativity and the willingness to change and keep on changing.
The theory of evolution brought about a significant element in the understanding of living processes. Time. It was understood, that living organisms are not fixed immemorial, but have a history of progression from earlier, simpler, more primitive forms. If amoeba’s had any kind of consciousness in which to apply the equivalent of naturalistic determinism of ‘amoeban nature’, we would still be swimming in a primordial soup. It is because ‘human nature’ is dynamic, dependent on environmental factors but not constrained to them, that I can write these words and exercise my free will.
A worldview based on reductionism and dualism, heredity vs. environment, is describing a world in stasis, a world whose individual components interact in fixed, limited and predictable ways, a world in which change is possible only along fixed and predefined frameworks. How convenient of a worldview is that for the ones ‘lucky’ enough to inherit a position in society’s wealthier 10%.
Many evolutionary psychologists propose the power of innate biological drives, of our genes, as the sole significant drive of our evolution. Their argument is that women have a primeval urge to hang on to wealthy men to provide for their children during the long period of pregnancy and nurturing, as did their primeval ancestors when selecting the strongest and best hunters as their ideal mates. Men, meanwhile, are mostly concerned about a woman’s fertility, for which beauty and youth serve as helpful cues. Of course, sexism varies within each society, and a nation’s overall level of gender-equality doesn’t necessarily translate to gender-equal attitudes among individuals. However, research carried out in nine nations proves that the more gender-unequal men’s personal attitudes, the more they prefer qualities in women such as youth and attractiveness and the more gender-unequal women’s attitudes, the more they prefer qualities in men such as money and status. It seems then that empirical evidence suggests that the attitudes which evolutionary psychologists assign to our selfish genes, are rather a result of our biases, not of our genetic makeup.
Biological determinism sees organisms, human or nonhuman, as adapted by evolutionary processes to their environment, to maximize their reproductive success in the environment in which they are born and develop. A process of adaptation that is essential, if the organisms stand any chance of survival. But is this true? Is this process actually uni-dimensional? The survival of certain species does not only depend on their ability to adapt to their environment, but also, on their ability to adapt their environment to suit their needs. Consider a bird building a nest. It needs to collect straw, sticks or even small stones, and bind them together in a suitable form to make room for itself and the young ones that will need to live there in the initial stage of their development, before they are able to fly away and look for their own food. A bird doesn’t find nests lying around in its environment but rather adapts the environment to satisfy the need to protect itself and its offspring. Natural environments are in constant modification by the organisms that inhabit them. Similarly, human genes, ‘human nature’, is completely worthless when it comes to ultraviolet vision or sensitivity to electrical fields, yet being able to see in ultraviolet or detect electrical fields are common activities in our human societies.
It seems, that this reductionist view of ‘human nature’, is totally inaccurate when asked to describe human progress, yet it is the prime argument when the discussion is directed towards issues like inequality, war and hunger. It is perfectly common to admire human inventiveness and human reason when describing the evolution of habitat, from cave to self-powered skyscraper, yet it is equally common to protest that it is irrational to expect world peace, since it clearly goes against ‘human nature’. I agree it goes against human history, but it would be paradoxical to say the same for ‘human nature’. In fact, the only reason that we seem to evolve in certain areas of human experience, but completely fail to do so in others is as simple as it is self-evident. Politics.
Politics however is not part of ‘human nature’. It is not even part of nature. Politics is a human invention and as such, is liable to human will. If social organization, including the inequalities of status, wealth, and power, are a direct consequence of our biologies, then whatever law we pass, whatever revolution we produce, nothing will ever change, since our biological makeup would always find a way to nullify our efforts, to cancel our exercises of free-will. This of course begs the question why the centers of power, wealth and status, have always historically invested in politics to achieve their ends. If their power, wealth and status, is a result of their ‘natural’ place in society, evidence of their superiority to adapt over their proletarian inferiors, politics should for them be totally pointless. Unless it isn’t.
Those in power understand the necessity to use violence with discretion. If possible, opposition should be oppressed using organizational tools within their control. Ideally, those that can threaten their place should be pacified by their own free will, by their unwillingness to challenge the legitimacy of their rule. In few words, politics needs ideology. For if what exists is ‘natural’ and ‘right’, if people can be convinced that to oppose the known is to oppose nature itself, any struggle against this reality will be doomed to fail. Bourgeois society, like the aristocratic feudal society it replaced, is characterized by immense differences in status, wealth, and power. The fact that there has been growth in the economy over time, so that in every generation, children are better off than their parents, and that there have been great shifts in the labor force from a production to a service economy, serves merely to mask these differences. Every positive aspect of our societal evolution was produced by the force of change, not by the force of maintaining order.
Democracy and human rights are nowhere to be found in nature, yet they are the pinnacle of societal evolution. The natural state of man is the state from which homo sapiens has struggled to free himself off, by creating an organized society. Nature has no concept of good, bad, fair or unfair and as a result it can be lethal and relentless to the weak that suffer it. A society that tries to imitate nature can never be a good or a just society, since it will produce the same unmerciful viciousness. Our achievements as species are owed to the victory of reason over nature’s indifference. The state, represents the societal institution which is tasked with the distribution of the surpluses of our collective labor. The level of fairness of this distribution, which will dictate the level of equality within a society, is determined by our ideas, not by our ‘nature’. Whether it will lean on protecting the right to life or on the will of the powerful to rule, is a conscious choice. So is the choice to subject to the reality that our forefathers have created or challenge it head on.
Every mutation that rearranged our DNA that brought one of our ancestors closer to being human, when it first occurred, must necessarily have been unique, and therefore abnormal. We are the direct descendants of millions of freaks. Not every freak is an improvement, but every improvement must first have been featured in a freak.
In light of evolution, natural law theory is bankrupt. It can give us no useful guidance as to what is good, fair, valuable or what goals to pursue. Respecting nature and taking steps to preserve it by mitigating the negative consequences of our civilization over it, is not the same as accepting that nature holds an ideal which we need to replicate. The new possibilities that lay ahead of us come from the choices we make, which define who we are, not the other way round. Because our values have arisen in a process of reasonable debate, not as consequences of our basic needs. Our common nature, if any, arises from choices that were enabled, but not determined, by biology. What biology teaches us about ‘human nature’ is that, in a very real sense, there is no such thing as ‘human nature’.